Space 2640 at St. John’s Church, self-described as a volunteer lot for grassroots events and radical politics, doesn’t quite boast the idolatry of grandiose stained glass and statues. Still the space emitted a distinct brightness far more radiant than the paper lanterns and fairy lights strung between the dilapidated columns were able to muster, as the ragtag bards of Neutral Milk Hotel returned from the shadows as though no time had passed. Every member standing in the crowd clung to something — a memory, a friend, a date — entirely spellbound as the Athens-bred collective triumphantly emerged from hiding to perform together again for the first time in 15 years.
The gristly voice behind the poignant lyrics, Jeff Mangum, and multi-instrumental wizard Julian Koster have toured extensively in recent years, with Mangum performing Neutral Milk Hotel numbers and Koster often opening with his lovable Music Tapes project. Yet these worn, witty songs had an incomprehensible magnitude when performed in unison, all singing saws, accordions, and French horns backing esoteric, intimate lyrics.
The modest frontman approached the stage alone, at first, humming and strumming along to opener “Two-Headed Boy”. Mangum’s voice is unmistakable live, yet more weathered than the one that still emanates from worn copies of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. One by one, the members joined Mangum onstage as the song drew to a close, bleeding into “The Fool”. Horns swelled and eyes welled as the trumpets marched into a half-funeral march, half-battle cry. Almost immediately, the band then tore into a rapid version of “Holland, 1945”, Mangum spitting his vibrant verses.
Although rumors of why they originally disbanded have focused on the band shying away their unexpected fame, Neutral Milk Hotel remain conscious of the weight their songwriting bears on fans. The band didn’t utilize the reunion – with a strict “no photo” policy, to boot — as a vehicle to perform unheard new material, but instead to revisit the beloved songs of their past. They performed every song from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea minus “Communist Daughter”, and the majority of On Avery Island. Years later, they’re finding ways to subtly toy with tension and tempo, keeping the magic alive for themselves, as well as a legion of fans. The dissonance is measured just as generously as harmony, the singing saws conjuring visions of ghostly memories that perhaps don’t belong to us.
Fittingly, every member of the band except Mangum drifted off and onstage depending on their roles within specific songs, as transient as the movements the songs themselves trace. Onstage some sat, others stood and swayed. Koster’s bass was decked out with felt cutouts of reindeer and Christmas trees. Several times a little feedback curled out from the amplifiers, and Mangum blundered in opening title track “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. The band didn’t apologize, but rather laughed, shrugging as though nothing had happened. These gestures dispelled the experience from becoming a lofty divide between arcane artist and audience, instead a congregation of friends participating together in a divine experience of acoustic twangs and trembling banjos.
Evidenced by the many tears and euphoric yelps peppered throughout the crowd, the experience was beyond one of spirituality — it was one of cleansing, perhaps redemption for some, maybe even closure for others. Like a preacher at his pulpit, a sincere Mangum held the attention of every person in the pit, all clinging to his every word, taking mental notes of movements during the various parts of “King of Carrot Flowers”. The wrenching “Oh Comely” unearthed new complexities for a band already entrenched in catharsis, much like the record version. Here it became evident that Mangum’s emotional and vocal range is so vast, it’s nearly untraceable. His voice shifted from croons to cries, at one point almost seething while he warbled, “You’re drunk on your awe to me/ it doesn’t mean anything at all.”
A prevailing sense of awe existed for the band too, who humbly thanked the audience after almost every song. Paralyzed by both disbelief and the vulnerability of the material at hand, the audience stood still — too still, to the point where Koster exclaimed, “It’s okay, you can talk!” The jubilant horn section — joined by Laura Carter of opener Elf Power on trumpet and zanzithophone — sang along with every word, even without mics, smiling in between breaths. The band visibly looked as ecstatic to be performing again as the audience was to be absorbing the music’s emotional resonance, which has only increased over the years. Toward the end of the set Mangum announced, “I really do love all these people. Just so you know.” We believe it.
Two-Headed Boy/The Fool
A Baby for Pree/Garden Head Leave Me Alone/Everything Is
King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 1, 2 & 3
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Song Against Sex
Ruby Bulbs/Snow Song
Ghost/Carnival in/Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Ferris Wheel on Fire